Terrorism Is Not An Existential Threat

One of the topics that was discussed in the first podcast episode of season two was the quality (or lack thereof) of most terrorism impacts. As if on cue, Charles V. Peña of The Independent Institute has written an excellent new article about the relative impact of terrorism — a card from the article is below the fold.

Terrorism is not an existential threat—their evidence is just hype.

Charles V. Peña, Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Senior Fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, former Senior Fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute and Former Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, Analyst for MSNBC television, holds an M.A. in Security Studies from George Washington University, 2010 (“Better Safe Than Sorry?,” Antiwar.com, September 30th, Available Online at http://original.antiwar.com/pena/2010/09/30/better-safe-than-sorry/print/, Accessed 10-01-2010)

In the post-9/11 world, “better safe than sorry” has become an article of faith guiding the actions we take in the name of preventing terrorism. But are we truly better safe than sorry?
To begin, the main reason so many people are willing to accept “better safe than sorry” is because they believe the consequences are too terrible to act otherwise. In other words, we should be willing to do almost anything to prevent another terrorist attack. Although another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 – which killed some 3,000 people – would be a great catastrophe and tragedy, it would not be an end-of-the-world event. As a nation, we survived 9/11, and we would (or at least we should) survive if there was another 9/11. That is not to trivialize or marginalize the people killed by the 9/11 attacks (or who would be killed in any future terrorist attacks), but it’s important to understand that terrorism is not an existential threat – otherwise, our responses are disproportionate (in magnitude or cost, or both) to the actual threat. It’s hard to be dispassionate because of the emotionalism surrounding 9/11, but here are some numbers worth considering to put “better safe than sorry” in context when it comes to terrorism. According to the Global Terrorism Database, from 1970 through 2007, there have been 1,347 terrorist incidents in the United States resulting in 3,340 fatalities (2,949 of which were on 9/11) and 2,234 injuries. That’s less than 100 fatalities per year on average (and more like 10 if you exclude 9/11 as an extraordinary event).
By way of comparison, consider these 2006 fatality statistics from the the Centers for Disease Control:
* Unintentional fall deaths: 20,853
* Motor vehicle traffic deaths: 43,646
* Unintentional poisoning deaths: 27,531
* Homicides: 18,573
* Firearms homicides: 12,791
Put another way, far more people die in a single year from other causes than have died as result of terrorism over a span of more than 35 years. Yet we have a Chicken Little attitude that the sky is falling when it comes to the potential threat of terrorism.

There are several more good cards in the article. What’s your favorite “terrorism is not an existential threat” card? Post it in the comments.

7 thoughts on “Terrorism Is Not An Existential Threat

  1. Ricardo Saenz

    The problem I have with these cards is while they might be very good in a probability X timeframe framework because they focus on body count, they dont seem assume retaliation. Most terrorism impacts arent "A nuke being blown up in Moscow or New York will kill people". Instead, they focus on perceptions of the attack because of the impossibility of tracking who is responsible. Authors like Morgan argue that this triggers an accidental nuclear war depending on where it is detonated.

    What would be the best card saying "Countries wont retaliate?"

    1. Robert

      This card's pretty good as an AT: retal —

      Mark Dowle, teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley, September, 2005, California Monthly, p. http://www.alumni.berkeley.edu/Alumni/Cal_Monthly

      Because terrorists tend to be stateless and well hidden, immediate retaliation in kind is almost impossible. But some nuclear explosions do leave an isotopic signature, a DNA-like fingerprint that allows forensic physicists such as Naval Postgraduate School weapons systems analyst Bob Harney to possibly determine the origin of the fissile material in the bomb. Nuclear forensics is not a precise science, Harney warns. Post-attack sites are almost certain to be contaminated with unrelated or naturally occurring radioactivity, and there are numerous, highly enriched uranium stashes in the world with unknown signatures. But there is no question, according to Peter Huessy, a member of the Committee on the Present Danger and consultant to the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., that Russian forensic experts could quickly detect Russian isotopes, and that highly enriched uranium (HEU) from, say, France could readily be differentiated from American HEU. But, Huessy warns, distinguishing post-blast residues of Pakistani uranium from North Korean uranium would be more challenging, probably impossible. Because neither country is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA inspectors have been unable to collect from their facilities reliable isotope samples that could be compared to post-attack residues. Even if the uranium were traced, the source nation could claim that the material had been stolen.

  2. Gabe

    I think one of the more important parts of the card is the non-unique: that there have been 1347 terrorist "incidents" since 1970. It's true that most people won't argue the attack itself causes extinction, but I think any other kind of existential impact is pretty non-uniqued by this card?

  3. Anon

    The utility of this card is limited. It doesn't address specific scenarios for terrorism such as nuke terror or bioterror. It basically functions only as an empirically denied to cards like Corsi.

    That said, having over 1000 instances where their impacts are empirically denied is still pretty good.

  4. Ricardo Saenz

    Another issue/question about this card. The article seems to make more of a normative statement rather than a descriptive statement. The article is about why America should not label terrorism as an existential threat and why it is economically detrimental and hype. How would this function in a debate? Would the judge just use this as an impact framing card? Could it be a counterplan? (I know this is a stretch)

Comments are closed.